Friday, March 4, 2016

Cuba before the Rolling Stones … oh! and a president - part two

What’s the point in coming to Cuba without a propaganda shot or two?

I’ll also throw in an old picture of Che and me, more years ago than I care to remember. 

A Marxist saint, but condemned by others as a bloodthirsty brute, Guevera remains controversial … 

… but forever young (unlike me) and marketing star of the revolution’s early years.

Outside Havana, quirky artwork portrays Guevera (and Fidel Castro holding a heart) heading to Cuba to begin the uprising against Batista’s regime.

For the first time I get to Santa Clara, five hours east of Havana … 

… where the revolution’s final battle occurred and where Guevera’s body was brought years after he was killed in Bolivia. 

I’m surprised that the darkened chamber where Guevera is buried below the statue is - as these things go in Communist countries - low key and relatively tasteful. Guevera’s just one of a number of comrades with only slightly more prominence. Cameras aren’t allowed. 

I spend some days walking in the Sierra de Escambray where the rebels fought and hid from Batista’s army.

Splendid scenery, but I wouldn’t fancy a prolonged stay battling mosquitos and unhappy government forces.

Visitors are sometimes surprised there are relatively few pictures of Fidel Castro, quite unlike the old Stalinist cults of personality. I have to search for the one above …

… whereas, in North Korea, Kim Il-Sung was even over my bed. Now, that’s serious dictatorship. 

Speaking of beds, a Cienfuegos hotel room where Castro once stayed is just a few doors down from my own. Hope he had better plumbing. And electricity. Earlier in my visit, I ate dinner by flashlight during a blackout.

Unlike Che’s grave, ‘low key and good taste’ aren’t words that come to mind at the Soviet - now Russian - Embassy in Havana. My hotel’s just down the road from one of the world’s ugliest buildings. This allows plenty of time to circle the mammoth structure while trying not to gag.

Some say that it resembles a sword hilt. Others, a menacing robot. I’m for the robot.

Built when the USSR was Cuba’s principal sponsor, it does have a flaw (other than design), at least if you’re a Communist atheist or an atheist Communist. Just across the street is San Antonio de Padua. So, as you can see, from certain angles the monstrous embassy sits uneasily with a handsome, modernist church built before the revolution. 

Whatever the flaws of totalitarian architecture, Cuban communism has brought benefits where life was - and can still be - a struggle. 

‘Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country’, said Lenin. Even this remote shack has a rudimentary power line. The health system is, arguably, one of the best in the Third World and Cubans have literacy levels on par with advanced industrial countries.

However, a combination of old economic orthodoxies, embargoes and collapse of Cuba’s principal backer mean that, like a car without doors, while Cuba works, it’s often just. 

Keeping things ticking over involves praiseworthy ingenuity and improvisation, but …  

… as with this crumbling, once glorious, house, there’s sometimes not much point. 

Or, as I think on going to the toilet, the time’s come for a new toilet. 

All that said, the Cubans I’ve encountered have been utterly charming - hola!